Tuesday brought a fresh reminder that the more-than-decade-long conflict in Afghanistan will not conclude on U.S. terms, with the Obama administration revealing it’s planning for a complete withdrawal from the troubled country at the end of the year.
The administration had hoped to leave behind a residual force of several thousand troops post-2014 for training and anti-terror operations, but Afghan President Hamid Karzai thus far has refused to sign a bilateral security agreement with the U.S. and, in the process, created a sense of confusion around America’s future role.
On Tuesday morning, President Obama — who made an end to the Afghan war a key part of his 2012 re-election campaign — called Mr. Karzai and told him the Pentagon has begun to craft a “contingency” plan should Afghanistan refuse American help moving forward. The U.S. currently has about 33,600 troops in the country.
“We have been calling on the Afghan government to complete that, to sign that agreement, which was negotiated in good faith, and to do so promptly,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters after the Obama-Karzai phone call.
“The president has tasked the Pentagon with preparing for the contingency that there will be no troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014. But we’re also remaining open to the possibility of a post-2014 troop presence, should the bilateral security agreement be signed later in the year.”
The discussion comes as Mr. Karzai, who has served as his country’s president since December 2001 and been a familiar yet sometimes unsteady American ally in the years since, prepares to leave office. Elections to choose his successor will be held in April.
While the White House concedes it’s “unlikely” Mr. Karzai will sign the agreement during his final weeks in office, there remains hope the next Afghan president will embrace an ongoing American presence.
Regardless of who the next Afghan leader is, congressional leaders such as House Speaker John A. Boehner will press the administration to secure a deal before the end of the year or risk seeing the nation fall into chaos.
“It is imperative that we reach a bilateral security agreement with the Afghan government before the end of the year to help ensure that the gains we have made are not jeopardized like they have been in Iraq,” Mr. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said in a statement.
At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Tuesday the U.S. military’s “force posture” over the next several months “will provide various options for political leaders in the United States and NATO.”
“During this time, [the Department of Defense] will still continue planning for U.S. participation in a NATO-led mission focused on training, advising, and assisting Afghan security forces, as well as a narrowly focused counterterrorism mission,” Mr. Hagel said.
NATO defense ministers are expected to meet in Brussels, Belgium, on Wednesday to discuss the alliance’s future military presence in Afghanistan. Mr. Hagel said that he will discuss his planning efforts with NATO allies this week.
The White House hasn’t set a firm date for when a security agreement must be signed, but officials made clear Tuesday the more time that goes by, the less the U.S. will be involved in future years.
“The longer we go without a bilateral security agreement, and we’ve been making this clear, the more challenging it will be to plan and execute any U.S. mission,” Mr. Carney said. “Furthermore, the longer we go without a signed bilateral security agreement, the more likely it will be that any post-2014 U.S. mission will be smaller in scale and ambition.”
“There are times when we must come to terms with the burden of our values. Afghanistan is one of those moments. Do we step back and abandon Afghanistan to the wolves? Do we still have a moral responsibility to the people there?” said retiring U.S. Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, California Republican and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, during a speech at the National Press Club on Monday.